Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

10 JUNE, 2013

Happy 50th Birthday, Equal Pay Act: A Brief History and Future of the Gender Wage Gap

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“Even in creative fields, such as book publishing, advertising, and journalism, where there was a pool of educated females, women were given menial jobs.”

On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law — a historic bill that aimed to abolish wage discrimination on the basis of gender in an era when newspapers published separate job listings for men and women. It stated:

No employer having employees subject to any provisions of this section [section 206 of title 29 of the United States Code] shall discriminate, within any establishment in which such employees are employed, between employees on the basis of sex by paying wages to employees in such establishment at a rate less than the rate at which he pays wages to employees of the opposite sex in such establishment for equal work on jobs[,] the performance of which requires equal skill, effort, and responsibility, and which are performed under similar working conditions, except where such payment is made pursuant to (i) a seniority system; (ii) a merit system; (iii) a system which measures earnings by quantity or quality of production; or (iv) a differential based on any other factor other than sex.

In her fantastic book The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued their Bosses and Changed the Workplace (public library), which tells the untold story of the lawsuit that changed the modern workplace, Lynn Povich contextualizes the monumental role the act played in turning the tide on gender-based discrimination:

In just about every industry, “office work” for women meant secretarial jobs and typing pools. Even in creative fields, such as book publishing, advertising, and journalism, where there was a pool of educated females, women were given menial jobs. In the 1950s, full-time working women earned on average between fifty-nine and sixty-four cents for every dollar men earned in the same job. It wasn’t until the passage of the Equal Pay Act in June 1963 that it became illegal to pay women a lower rate for the same job. And there were very few professional women. Until around 1970, women comprised fewer than 10 percent of students in medical school, 4 percent of law school students, and only 3 percent of business school students.

Upon signing the Equal Pay Act, JFK remarked:

I am delighted today to approve the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which prohibits arbitrary discrimination against women in the payment of wages. This act represents many years of effort by labor, management, and several private organizations unassociated with labor or management, to call attention to the unconscionable practice of paying female employees less wages than male employees for the same job. This measure adds to our laws another structure basic to democracy. It will add protection at the working place to the women, the same rights at the working place in a sense that they have enjoyed at the polling place.

While much remains to be done to achieve full equality of economic opportunity — for the average woman worker earns only 60 percent of the average wage for men — this legislation is a significant step forward.

American Association of University Women members with President John F. Kennedy as he signs the Equal Pay Act into law on June 10, 1963.

Image: Abbie Rowe, White House Photographs; courtesy JFK Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

But for all its significance, the EPA was still crippled by the era’s gender stereotypes — for its first nine years, it didn’t extend to executive or even administrative-level jobs, thus rendering white-collar women professionals exempt from and unaffected by the new anti-discrimination policy. It wasn’t until 1972 — the same year that groundbreaking feminism magazine Ms. forever changed women’s visibility, that the Educational Amendment extended coverage to the executive class. In 2009, in the first signing of his presidency, Barack Obama signed into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, overturning the Supreme Court’s ruling on the statute of limitations on gender-unequal paychecks and holding each such paycheck as a new violation to the law.

So where are we today, half a century after the EPA’s passing? Not too far, it seems: The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that women’s wages have risen from 62% to 80% of men’s in the three decades following 1970, but there is still a palpable wage gap or, as some have argued, a job gap — even if it is smaller than myth suggests. Even though women are earning more higher education degrees, gender inequality in the workforce still exists. And yet, some critics are ringing the death toll on men’s income dominance, largely due to the tipping of the education scales:

What are we to make of all this? (Pete Seeger might have some thoughts.) At the end of the day, policy is only half the battle in winning the war on society’s most heartbreaking instances of gender inequality. When it comes to work, however much employment may be legislated, there might, just might, be greater gratification in finding our purpose and pursuing fulfilling work by defining our own success rather than being somebody’s employee.

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06 JUNE, 2013

President Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Ending Rape in the Military

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“Never forget that honor, like character, is what you do when nobody is looking.”

For all its life-wisdom and creative inspiration, commencement season could use an adjustment of the reality radar and address some of our time’s most uncomfortable yet pressing issues in those speeches designed to send graduating seniors off into the real world they are about to reshape. Though integrity is a common theme in such messages — curiously, especially in decades-old ones like those by Richard Feynman and Bill Watterson — integrity’s most gruesome failures are rarely discussed. But that’s precisely what President Obama, who is no stranger to inspirational graduation speeches, did in his 2013 U.S. Naval Academy commencement address when he brought into the limelight the devastating epidemic of rape in the military — a military in which 26,000 sexual assaults were reported last year, a female soldier in a combat zone is more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire, and those who have the power to change things fail to do so; a military whose willingness to curtail such dehumanizing violence has not evolved but dramatically devolved since the Civil War.

Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime — they threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong. That’s why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they have no place in the greatest military on earth. So, class of 2013, I say all this because you are about to assume the burden of leadership. … And those of us in leadership, myself included, have to constantly strive to remain worthy of the public trust. As you carry forth … we need your honor — that inner compass that guides you not when the path is easy and obvious, but when it’s hard and uncertain; that tells you the difference between that which is right and that which is wrong. Perhaps it’ll be the moment when you think nobody is watching — but never forget that honor, like character, is what you do when nobody is looking.

(Nearly half a century ago, Joan Didion wrote, “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”)

Graduates toss hats in the air at conclusion of U.S. Naval Academy commencement at the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, May 24, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

A mere day later, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel took the podium at West Point and echoed President Obama in addressing the 215th graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy:

You will need to not just deal with these debilitating, insidious, and destructive forces but, rather, you must be the generation of leaders that stop it. This will require a commitment to building a culture of respect and dignity for every member of the military and society. Sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are a profound betrayal of sacred oaths and sacred trust. This scourge must be stamped out. We’re all accountable and responsible for ensuring that this happens. … These crimes have no place — NO PLACE — in the greatest military on earth.

But more than a decade before Obama and Hagel, long before the full devastating scale of the problem was known, Terri Spahr Nelson — a decorated United States Army veteran and psychotherapist specializing in sexual trauma recovery — writes in For Love of Country: Confronting Rape and Sexual Harassment in the U.S. Military, a series of stirring interviews with assault survivors:

We can and should learn from the insight of those who experienced sexual assault and sexual harassment by military personnel. Maybe then we will fully learn what needs to be done to improve the military’s response to the victims, to the offenders, and to this issue. We might also learn how to put a stop to this cycle of abuse. As one veteran and rape victim asked, “Hasn’t this gone on long enough?”

Indeed, it has gone on long enough. This enduring problem has cost lives and careers. We cannot afford to lose another life at the hands of continued indifference or power failure. These stories need to be told not to degrade the military, but as a step toward addressing the problem and restoring honor and integrity within the Armed Forces. After all, there is no honor without truth.

She cites a nineteen-year-old female soldier raped while on active duty:

I was prepared to be a prisoner of war or worse for my country. I wasn’t prepared to have my superiors and comrades sexually abuse me. I must admit that a chaplain I told my story to in 1996 said something I had not realized. He said, “Your comrades were your enemy and you were in a combat zone.”

Nelson adds:

Sexual assault and harassment are deeply rooted in today’s armed forces. The problem is further complicated by a system that has been unable or unwilling to effectively address this issue over the years. Far too many military leaders have turned their heads to the ongoing abuses and far too many victims have been further harmed by a culture that perpetuates and minimizes the abuse. These types of response represent a breakdown of values, a disconnection from the military’s true mission, and a loss of honor for those involved.

So, why now? How come this deeply rooted malady is only reaching critical cultural awareness and eliciting a call of action, from the President no less, now? It is, no doubt, in large part thanks to the remarkable film The Invisible War (watch online), which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and which exposed, with heartbreaking humanity, the military’s most disgraceful cover-up as a problem that isn’t just a military problem:

The film has sprouted the sister nonprofit Not Invisible, which empowers all of us to take action and demand, at last, change. You can join me in donating to the Not Invisible Coalition here.

Thanks, Sue

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30 MAY, 2013

Remoralizing Marriage: Dan Savage in Conversation with Andrew Sullivan at NYPL

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How marriage equality is fortifying the “equality” part rather than compromising the “marriage” part.

At a recent event from the terrific LIVE from the NYPL series held at the central branch of New York Public Library, Andrew Sullivan — one of my favorite people on and off the internet — took the stage to have a wide-ranging, funny, poignant, unabashedly honest conversation with celebrated sex columnist and LGBT rights advocate Dan Savage, mastermind of the monumentally heartening It Gets Better Project. (Meanwhile, twenty years ago this month, Andrew authored the seminal essay “The Politics of Homosexuality.”). The event at once a celebration of the release of Savage’s new book, American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics (public library), and a timely response to the height of today’s cultural heat around the antiquated legislature banning marriage equality.

In fact, among the conversation’s finest points is their discussion of what marriage is and stands for, from its dark roots as an institution for the oppression of women — one Susan Sontag famously termed “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings” — to its aspiration of celebrating the deepest of human bonds, the kind that ultimately warmed Darwin’s rational heart. As Andrew brilliantly puts it, marriage equality, when closely examined, is an effort not to demoralize marriage but to remoralize it, to bring it closer to its ideals of a union of equals and further from its pathologies. Transcribed highlights below.

On how the promise of marriage equality is in fact reexamining and fortifying the “equality” part, ridding it of its historical baggage, rather than compromising the “marriage” part:

AS: What you’re doing, I think, is actually remoralizing — you’re not demoralizing. You’re saying that the morals that these structures have sustained are actually no longer moral, they’re actually forcing people to be cruel to one another, they’re forcing people to be miserable…

DS: …particularly women to be miserable, and to be enslaved. You know, harking back to traditional marriages in Western families, those were lousy times to be the female in the marriage.

On what the case of Andrew’s parents, who divorced after 49 years of marriage, tells us about the toxic and deceptive ideal of “till death do us part”:

DS: If your mother had been hit by a bus on the way to the lawyer [to divorce your father], everyone would have gone, “Oh, 49 years together — they had a successful marriage.” But 49 years and then they part — that’s an “unsuccessful marriage.” Because we define success in marriage as death … doesn’t matter how miserable you were, doesn’t matter whether it was fulfilling, doesn’t matter if it was an abusive relationship or one of sexual deprivation and lifelong misery and resentment and abuse — if somebody’s getting buried and you’re still married, awesome. And I don’t think that’s a workable definition of marriage when people have access to divorce courts and lawyers.

On how the option of divorce actually makes the marriages that do endure richer and more actively loving:

There’s something about realizing that marriage is opt-in — which it is now, marriage is always opt-in, at any moment you can opt out — it’s almost like you have to earn your partner’s presence in your life. … You cannot take them for granted in a way that you could when it was one woman, one man, for life.

In American Savage, which is excellent in its entirety and a necessary tool of contemporary cultural literacy, Savage explores the subject further:

Defenders of “traditional marriage,” circa 1750, not 1950, objected to anyone marrying for something so unstable as a feeling, Stephanie Coontz argues in Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, no one married for love. You married for property if you were a man; you were married off as property if you were a woman. Couples married to cement alliances. Princes married to unite kingdoms; peasants married to bring small parcels of land together. But marriage wasn’t something you did back then. Marriage was something that was done to you: Young, marriage-age adults (or preadolescents) didn’t have the power or judgment to craft marriage contracts, negotiate alliances, identify the best acreage in the village. Their families — their fathers or eldest male relatives — did that for them.

Much as the advice business is geared toward the needs of women … traditional marriage arrangements were geared toward the needs of men. Historically monogamy wasn’t imposed on or expected from men. Traditionally men (and “traditionally married” men) had concubines; men had multiple wives; men had mistresses; men had access to sex workers. It was only in the middle of the twentieth century— as marriage was redefined from an inherently sexist and oppressive institution to something more egalitarian (i.e., women could own property; they weren’t property)— that monogamous expectations were imposed on men, with often disastrous results. Men aren’t good at it, as anyone who has read a newspaper over the last ten years can attest (Edwards, John; Sanford, Mark; Vitter, David; Petraeus, David, et al.). But rather than extend the same license to women that men have always enjoyed— you can get some on the side, now and then, if you must, but be discreet— we’ve imposed on men the same limitations that women have always endured.

Complement with the wonderful Gay in America project and some heart-warming illustrated marriage equality for kids.

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